Everyone Is a Taker

After a year where Republicans—even so-called “moderates,” like Mitt Romney—devoted themselves to dividing the public into “makers” and “takers,” a new survey from the Pew Research Service shows that most Americans—55 percent, in fact—are “dependent on government” in some form.

Specifically, Pew found that “most Democrats (60 percent) and Republicans (52 percent) say they have benefited from a major entitlement program at some point in their lives.” Likewise, so have “nearly equal shares of self-identifying conservatives (57 percent), liberals (53 percent) and moderates (53 percent).” In the actual survey, Pew asked about the entire basket of programs we associate with “entitlements”: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, and unemployment benefits.

Entitlement use begins early, and grows with age: A third of adults ages 18 to 29 say they have received at least one major entitlement payment, which grows to 45 percent for those ages 30 to 49, 59 percent for those ages 50 to 64, and near-universal—97 percent—for those ages 65 or older, since that is the age at which most people qualify for Social Security and Medicare. When broken down by demographics, whites are just as likely to use entitlements as minorities (56 percent versus 57 percent), and rural Americans are—at 62 percent—substantially more likely to have received entitlement payments than their urban or suburban counterparts (53 and 54 percent, respectively.)

What’s interesting is that this completely inverts the “makers”/“takers” narrative. Conservatives attack Obama voters as belonging to the “47 percent”—young people, minorities, single women, and others who want “gifts” from the federal government. But as Pew shows, the actual “takers” of American life are middle-aged and elderly voters; the older you are, the more likely you are to receive benefits from the government. In fact, 53 percent of Mitt Romney’s voters were people who had received a government payment at some point in their lives (for Obama, it was 59 percent).

It should be said that this helps explain the GOP’s current political dilemma. When your animating force is extreme hostility to the welfare state, and your main supporters—older white people—are completely dependent on government benefits, your only option is something like the Ryan budget: massive tax cuts for the rich, and sharp reductions in social spending for everyone born after the 1950s.

Not only is this a ridiculous proposal for running the federal government, it is—as we saw last month—not especially popular with voters.

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